As presented at the annual congregational meeting, the elders are planning to provide a twelve-week sabbatical for me and my family. Personally, I can’t thank you enough for your expressions of thanks, support, and encouragement this past December. Words can’t express how much it means that you would make this investment in myself and our family for the coming year. The sabbatical will likely take place between mid-May and mid-August, so that we can spend as much time together as a family as possible before Muriel leaves for college.
Some of you may not be familiar with a ministry sabbatical. In academic institutions, professors are given sabbatical semesters or sabbatical years where they may teach, research, or undertake a given project. In pastoral ministry, the purpose of a sabbatical is different than an academic study leave, although it may involve a time of study. A ministry sabbatical is also not an extended vacation. A sabbatical may involve times of vacation, but that is not the primary purpose.
The Hebrew verb translated sabbath means “to rest, to cease”. God commanded his people to observe the Sabbath as part of their weekly rhythm of worship. The purpose of Sabbath for the people of God is to worship by remembering that God has provided everything they need, and it is God who rested on the seventh day after his work of creation. Resting from all ministry responsibilities helps prevent exhaustion and burnout, which are quite common for pastors. One purpose of rest from all ministry responsibility is so that the pastor can recognize the church is not completely dependent upon him, and that God will continue the ministry without him present. This means that weekly tasks will need to be delegated: preaching, bulletin preparation, announcements, visitation, worship planning, prayers for the church, etc. One benefit of the sabbatical my former church granted in 2013 was this: people who were not as actively involved before my sabbatical became more involved in serving the Lord when I was on sabbatical, since there is an obvious need with the pastor away. A sabbatical is an opportunity for people to express more of the gifts and areas of service which God has given the church.
The second purpose of sabbatical is that of REFRESHMENT. In his book, The Rest of God, pastor Mark Buchanan talks about how he went hiking with a friend on one of his days off. The two found some remote ponds in the mountains and spent time jumping off the nearby rocks into the icy cold water. There was no specific “purpose” to what they were doing, other than to enjoy God’s creation. Buchanan makes the point that he felt more “alive” in his body, mind and heart after that experience because it was refreshing, physically and spiritually. Buchanan realized he needed more days like that in his schedule. In pastoral ministry, one danger is to start thinking of the ministry as a job, rather than a calling. It is easy to lose the sense of wonder, beauty, and joy of following Christ. It is harder to be refreshed while doing ministry full time (think of a pilot trying to refuel the plane while at the same time flying the plane). The pause of sabbatical provides the time and opportunity to read God’s word without having to think about the next sermon, worship service, prayer time, etc. It also provides the space to do things which are refreshing and edifying, personally and as a family.
The third purpose of a sabbatical is that of REFLECTION. With the Lord’s guidance and possibly other coaches or counselors, a healthy sabbatical will show myself and our family things we have not seen before relating to our marriage, parenting, friendships, schedules, etc. It will give me the opportunity to seek the Lord as to how I am currently using the gifts He has given me and what I might change in order to minister more fruitfully. During the sabbatical, God may show Trinity things related to how He wants us to serve the community, how we as a church strategically use our time, talents, and resources, or God may show us a new area of ministry to focus on. A sabbatical can be a time for both the pastor and the church to gain perspective and give thanks for what God has done in our midst, as well as listen for the Lord’s prompting toward the future. A sabbatical is one of the best things a church can do to support its pastor. It is a healthy endeavor no matter who the pastor is or what he is going through at the time. It benefits both the pastor and the church. Let’s begin praying now that God will make this time fruitful for all of us in 2023. Pastor Jim